I am trying something a little different here. I found The Golem and the Jinni to be a fun, magical fairy tale of a romance with a fair bit of excitement to it. But it is pretty clear that this is also a serious, literary work, raising meaningful philosophical questions, while using the folklore of two different cultures to inform the immigrant experience, offering a fascinating look at a place and time, and linking the experiences of the old and new worlds. These two takes seemed to call for different reviews. And, as I maintain only one book review blog, the result is two, two, two reviews in one.
Everyone loves legends, lore, tales of long ago, filled with heroes and magical beings. They dilate our pupils, excite our imagination and provide the fodder for our dreams. Helene Wecker has written a very grown up fairy tale, bringing to life a pair of magical beings. In doing so she has transported old world legend to a place where and a time when vast numbers of more ordinary people were trying to create new dreams, new legends of their own, immigrant New York City at end of the 19th century.
The Golem is a clay creature constructed by a corrupt Kabalist near Danzig, at the behest of Otto Rotfeld, an unsuccessful, unattractive young man. But Rotfeld was not looking for a thuggish destroyer. He wanted his golem to be made in the form of a woman and imbued with curiosity, intelligence and a sense of propriety. On the passage to New York, Otto suffers a burst appendix and dies, but not before he speaks the words that bring his creation to life. Newborn and alone, but with an ability to perceive the wants of those around her, the Golem is set loose in New York. Wandering around, she is spotted for what she really is by a retired rabbi on the Lower East Side. He takes her in, tries to get her settled and struggles with how to deal with the fact that she is a creature usually built for the purpose of destruction.
Helene Wecker – image from the Boston GlobeNot too far away, in Little Syria, an Arab immigrant community near the southern tip of Manhattan, Boutros Arbeely, a tinsmith, is brought an unusually old copper flask. While attempting to repair it, he is confronted by a magical being of his own, a handsome arrogant, and unclothed jinni. Unfortunately for the jinni, despite having been freed of the flask, he remains trapped in the shape of a human, bound there by an iron cuff on his wrist. In this telling jinnis, despite excelling at metalwork, have no power over iron. He will have to cope as a human.
Each faces challenges. The Golem, named Chava (which means life) by the rabbi must cope with the flood of wishes that assail her consciousness from the thousands of people around her. She must learn to keep her identity secret. This includes coping with the fact that she does not sleep, and that it is not considered ok for a young woman to be seen walking the city streets at night, even if it her purpose is honorable. Like many immigrants before her, she is helped by prior arrivals. She learns to bake and gets a job in a bakery. Unable to go out at night she takes in sewing. How immigrant is that?
The jinni, taken in by the tinsmith, is given work in the shop, once it becomes apparent that he is a marvel with metal, able to heat and mold it with his bare hands. Boutros names him Ahmad. The jinni is also challenged to keep his true nature under cover. But a part of his nature is a lustful side. He is smitten with a young thing he encounters and one thing leads to another. Chava, while not much hot to trot herself, becomes an object of romantic interest to a very good young man.
Of course, in time, the two encounter each other, and that is where the story takes off. Not only is there magic in the interaction of these two friends, strangers in a strange land, they bring depth to their relationship, adding even more depth to this novel. Chava has content-rich discussions with her rabbi rescuer, on matters such as why people risk so much to have sex, or whether people need a concept of God to keep them from self-destructing. She and Ahmad discuss the stresses of free will vs the certainty of slavery. They talk about her interest in satisfying the wishes of those around her while Ahmad is mostly concerned with satisfying his desires of a moment. A great part of the magic in this fable is how the two begin at extreme ends and meet somewhere in the middle, growing and changing, but very much aware of their limitations.
The two embody, in a way, the immigrant experience. Coming to a new country, learning new ways, changing in order to fit in, coming to value what has been found, building a life. But character growth, consideration of serious moral subjects and a moving relationship are not all that this book has going on. There is danger afoot.
Keeping the action moving, we get not only a look into the jinni’s ancient past, a fascinating and moving segment, but there is pursuit on those cobble-stoned streets. A person with evil intent is tracking the scent of magic and surviving this onslaught is the motive force. As we have come to care about both our primary characters their safety matters.
Not only has Wecker populated her fable with two wonderful leads, but her backup players are extremely rich. In fact this is one of the best supporting casts I have seen in a while.
The Golem and the Jinni has love, parental and romantic, philosophical heft, a vibrant picture of a place and time, the equivalent of an action/adventure trial-by-danger and enough magic to shake a wand at. In short it is everything in a book that you could possibly wish for.
It may not take you a thousand and one nights to read The Golem and the Jinni, but you may wish it did because you will hate to put it down.
It is 1899. In a town near Danzig, Otto Rotfeld is a failing Prussian Jewish businessman. He does not have much success with the ladies either. A leering and dismissive manner will do that. Determined to change his luck he opts to join the throng heading to that new Mecca, the USA. Figuring the female sorts there will find him as appealing as did those of the Old World, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Well, rather into the hands of a morally challenged Kabalist who is ok with crafting what Otto wants, a bespoke Golem, using the traditional clay, but made in the shape of a woman, and not the sort of towering, lumbering, bad-hair destroyer that usually pops to mind, thanks to early German cinema.
Or a more 20th century version
Gotta confess, I now see Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame in the role.
Image from syfy.com
Hey, the guy’s got needs. (This raises the wonderful theoretical possibility of a high-end retail business, Build-a-Golem. Schmul, more clay, hurry up.) Unwell in his steerage accommodation, Otto is looking for a little companionship and wakes his special friend. Just in time, as it turns out, as Otto, and his burst appendix, fail to make it to the particular new world he was hoping to reach. This leaves a rather bewildered, powerful and telepathic mythical creature heading for Ellis Island. She finds an unusual way to cope when asked for her papers, which I will not spoil, then, wandering around the city, is taken in by a retired rabbi who sees her for what she really is. (Yeah, he’s a lot older, but he really sees me) The Golem truly is a stranger in a strange land, but she is not the only oddity on shore.
In Little Syria, an immigrant community near the southern tip of Manhattan, a Maronite Catholic tinsmith, Boutros Arbeely, is brought a copper flask to repair. While beginning work on the piece with a soldering iron (no rubbing of the magic container this time) he is blasted across the room, and before you can say Robin Williams three times fast, there on his shop floor is a naked man. And it’s not even Halloween in the Village. Really, he is a creature made of fire and mist, but is confined by virtue of an iron bracelet into the form of a human. In this imagining, iron is something a jinni can’t do anything with, I guess like bad fashion sense. Sorry, no puff of smoke. But this magic man is a hottie. He is, of course, cut and handsome, but in addition, he is a natural metalworker. Boutros, despite the jinni’s arrogance, gives him a place to live and a job. He ain’t never had a friend like him. I see in my tiny mind the steamy Colin O’Donoghue (currently Captain Hook on Once Upon a Time)
Maybe Mena Massoud of Aladdin fame
Ya think these two illegal immigrants might cross paths? Duh-uh. But it will take some time, as each has his and her own road to travel.
If I had three wishes the first would be to be able to write as well as Helene Wecker. She manages to combine several layers to make a compelling whole. She compares a bit of folklore from two different cultures and looks at how they work in a new place. She offers philosophical consideration of deep human issues. She offers a wonderful view of a place and a time, and there is a motive force here that keeps the story moving, and presents our two leads with a mortal threat.
On one level this tale is a bit of a romance. Boy meets Gol. (permission to groan) Well, not exactly a boy, but a mythical fire being who was 200 years old when a wizard confined him, maybe 600 years prior to the now of the story. And this clay hulk is not just a soul-less destroyer, but has a definite tender side. I was reminded of Mary Shelley’s creation, the novel’s version, really trying to figure out his, or in this case, her place in the world, struggling to work out her relationship to god and to morality, and to the people around her. I could not help but think back to my Catholic school days and the Q and A of the Baltimore Catechism.
Q – Why did God make you?
A – God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him…
Sounds a little creepy in this context, doesn’t it?
As a creature built to be a slave, but lacking a master, the golem must become her own master in a way, (a Ronin?) accepting guidance for sure, but facing real existential dilemmas. What happens when the guy in charge is no longer around? She engages in a discussion with the jinni about the messiness of free will versus the certainty of slavery to the will of another, raising up issues not only of actual slavery, but of blind allegiance, whether to a military cause, a political party, a religious persuasion. When is a person responsible for his or her actions and when does responsibility lie elsewhere? (I am including that discussion here, but am using the spoiler label to separate it from the body of the review. It is not really spoiler material.)“If, by some chance or magic you could have your master back again, would you wish it?”
It was an obvious question, but one that she had never quite asked herself. She’d barely known Rotfeld, even to know what sort of a man he was. But then, couldn’t she guess? What sort of man would take a golem for a wife, the way a deliveryman might purchase a new cart?
But oh, to be returned to that certainty! The memory of it rose up, sharp and beguiling. And she wouldn’t feel as though she was being used. One choice, one decision—and then, nothing.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “Maybe I would. Though in a way, I think it would be like dying. But perhaps it would be for the best. I make so many mistakes on my own.”
…”I have no idea,” he said, “how long I was that man’s servant. His slave. I don’t know what he may have forced me to do. I might have done terrible things. Perhaps I killed for him. I might have killed my own kind” there was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. “But even worse would be it I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given a choice, I’d sooner extinguish myself in the ocean.”
“But if all those terrible things did happen, then it was the wizard’s fault not yours,” she said.
Again, that not quite laugh. “Do you have colleagues at this bakery where you work?”
“Of course,” she said.”
…He said. “Imagine that your precious master returns to you, and you give yourself to him, as you say perhaps you would. Because you make so many mistakes. And he said, ‘Please, my dear golem, kill those good people at the bakery…Rip them limb from limb.”
“Oh, for whatever reason! They insult him, or make threats against him, or he simply develops a whim. Imagine it. And then tell me what comfort it gives to think it wasn’t your own fault.”
This was a possibility she had never considered. And now she couldn’t help but picture it: grabbing Moe Radzin by the wrist and pulling until his arm came free. She had the strength. She could do it. And all the while, that peace and certainty.
No, she thought—but now, having started down this path, her mind refused to stop. What if Rotfeld had made it safely to America with her, and the Rabbi had noticed them on the street one day? In her mind, the Rabbi confronted Rotfeld—and then she was dragging the Rabbi into an alley, and choking the life from him.
It made her want to cry out. She put the heels of her hands to her eyes, to push the images away.
“Now do you understand?” the jinni asked
The Golem has content-rich discussions with her rabbi rescuer, on matters such as why people risk so much to have sex, or whether people need a concept of God to keep them from self-destructing. She and Ahmad talk about her interest in satisfying the wishes of those around her while Ahmad is mostly concerned with satisfying his desires of a moment. A great part of the magic in this fable is how the two begin at extreme ends and meet somewhere in the middle, growing and changing, but very much aware of their limitations.
The jinni, while he may still have a trick or two up his sleeves (yes, Boutros does cover him up), chief among which is the ability to mold metal with his bare hands, is still stuck in a human body and is forced to cope as a human. The Golem, whom the kindly rabbi names Chava, which means life, of course, must constantly struggle to hide her real identity. She struggles as well to control her impulses, in a way, like Shelley’s creature, a child attempting to grow up. And she does pretty well, whether restraining herself from satisfying the flood of mental wants and needs that her telepathy picks up, or the occasional urge to pound some a-hole into bits. She is not the most outgoing sort, and is seen by many as a stick in the mud at times.
So, are these two crazy kids gonna get together or what? Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that. Different paths, remember? The jinni happens to be hanging at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park when his attention alights on a young thing of a late-teen socialite, Sophia, kept on a leash (or is it in a lamp?) by her mother. Her entire life is planned out for her. Someone follows her home and things heat up. Chava, is not a slave to carnal whims, she may or may not even have carnal whims. But the rabbi has a mensch of a nephew, Michael. Sadly fallen from The Chosen, but a very nice young man who runs a hostel for new immigrants. Such a nice boy. You could do worse, Chavelah.
So, you may wonder, do jinnis or golems sleep? I’ll tell you. No. While not much for snoozing, the jinni has the ability to insert himself (what did I tell you about that? Stop it) into people’s dreams. At least in this story it is only into the dreams of females. Sorry, boys. I imagine that when she was writing these sections, Wecker had to struggle to keep images of Barbara Eden from inserting themselves into her consciousness and giggling until she choked.
What to do with those long nights? Walking of course. Well, for Mister Ahmad, anyway. It was not considered proper in that era for a young lady to be seen walking the streets alone late at night. It creates the wrong impression, and attracts the interest of unsavory sorts, like the police. As an illegal, and a non-human, that would not do. So Chava does what any young, energetic young lady in the turn of the century Lower East Side would do. Stop that, no, not that. She takes in sewing. Jeez.
In fact there is a lot in this book about the immigrant experience, legal and not, at the end of the 19th century. Two communities both nurture their new arrivals, struggle to get by, to make a better life, attempting to leave behind some of the problems of the Old World. The two embody, in a way, the immigrant experience. Coming to a new country, learning new ways, changing in order to fit in, coming to value what has been found, building a life. Receiving new names.
Free will permeates as a theme. A young New York socialite feels as imprisoned by the future that has been laid out for her as the golem does by her subservience to magical commands, as the jinni does to the metal cuff that denies him his true form, and as another young Bedouin lass feels back in the Old country. You will want to keep in mind notions of imprisonment and the difference between sand castles and other sorts, belonging, community, and note the odd angel motif.
But character growth, consideration of serious moral subjects and a moving relationship are not all that this book has going on. There is danger afoot. Keeping the action moving, we get not only a look into the jinni’s ancient past, a fascinating and moving segment, but there is pursuit on those cobble-stoned streets. A person with evil intent is tracking the scent of magic and surviving this onslaught is the motive force. As we have come to care about both our primary characters their peril matters.
Not only has Wecker populated her fable with two wonderful leads, but her backup players are extremely rich. In fact this is one of the best supporting casts I have seen in a while.
You will not need to endanger your community through the use of dark magic or possess a magic vessel to find your next great read. The Golem and the Jinni will be available far beyond the shtetls of Europe, the deserts of the Middle East, and the New York City limits. This modern Sheherezade has written a magical book and there is no rub. The Golem and the Jinni is all that you could possibly wish for.
This review was originally posted on GR in November 2012
It was posted on Fantasy Book Critic on January 22, 2014
3/31/13 – I found a group of interview clips with the author, from Library Love Fest. They broke the interview up into 17 clips, and popped them onto Youtube. There is a lot of interesting information there.
GR bud Susan Tunis taped the author’s reading and Q/A
5/6/13 – NY Times review
5/16/13 – NY Times Sunday Book Review